Finish Strong: A Look at Construction Jobs That Are Safe from AI


Over the years, our country’s trade infrastructure has broken down, and the sense of pride in working with your hands has been eroded. A disparity between employment demands of the building industry and the shortage of trained, qualified labor is growing wider.

In this three-part series we continue our look at the skilled-labor shortage and the people and institutions trying to change the way we think about trade jobs. In this article we take a look at what makes a job safe from artificial intelligence.

Video: Tile laying

What makes a job safe from artificial intelligence?

As we watch the students of Chicago’s International Masonry Institute (IMI) patiently piece together a complicated mosaic, it is hard not to wonder how this ancient craft with its slow methodical build fares in a modern a workforce: a workforce that struggles under both the weight of immediate need and the great uncertainty of constantly evolving technologies. On the one end, the skills gap hovers over the heads of builders, developers and the industry as a whole. Laborers are in high demand. Skilled-workers even more so. While on the other, the growth of artificial intelligence in the workforce continues to drive academic discussions on the best way to prepare the next generation of workers. Which jobs will remain? Which skillsets are transferable? In the middle are the students left to navigate the real-life implications.

Video: Tile touch up

From the field to the factory

Uncertainty over long-term job security coupled with rising university tuition and subsequent student-debt is leaving many students in a challenging position.

While, the full effects of automation may not be felt yet, PwC predicts the first wave of automation affected only around 3% of jobs, the second wave promises to be more far-reaching. Leaving students everywhere to consider the long-term viability of their career choices.

“You go to school get this degree in this field and you come out working in totally different field and then you have all this debt,” says Mekia Perrin, a student at the International Masonry Institute, explaining the uncertainty and concerns of a committing to a four-year degree.

These conversations aren’t isolated to the college-bound. They are happening everywhere.

Experts predict many trade jobs could see movement from the field into the factory. Jobs such as framing, rough carpentry, even electrical, could be moving indoors in the near future as builders and manufacturers work to streamline processes through standardization and better environmental controls.

Video: Tile grouting.

Outside the reaches of AI

But there are areas that are safe, at least for now. According to research out of the University of Oxford, jobs that are heavy in creativity and artistic design, those that require social skills and those requiring manual dexterity are at the lowest risk. Leaving strong career prospects for those that know how to add the perfect finishing touch.

“I don’t think our job could be taken over by a robot,” says IMI tile apprentice Sergio Maldonado. “You have to be there. You have to move the tile around. It’s how you see it; how the eye sees it. The robot’s not going to be able to see that.”

“Field finish falls out of this,” agrees CertainTeed Building Scientist Lucas Hamilton referring to the migration of the built environment to the factory floor. “Finishing will still have to be completed on the job-site.”

Actually, as we break more parts of the build into component work, and move them offsite, quality finishers will likely be in even greater demand.

That’s not to say these jobs aren’t going to evolve too, but here, the experts are seeing the work going back to its origins, back to the craft.

“To really look nice in the field, we are going to need craftsmen to come in and smooth out the rough edges,” says Hamilton, “Basic skills are moving into the factory, but you still need the tile-guy to come in and finish.”

“Frankly,” he says, “I think they are going to be valued even more.”

Watch more student and staff interviews and learn about the International Masonry Institute as part of our series on Keeping Craft Alive. Above you can see their beautiful tile mosaic that was the feature of our trade show booth.

Plus, how we are supporting a mission of 10 million skilled-workers by 2020 and the stories of the people in the field keeping the trades alive.

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